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Duckhorn Winery in the Napa Valley enjoys prominent success as the acclaimed Merlot on the West Coast, thanks in large part to its chief winemaker Renee Ary. Photo courtesy Duckhorn Winery
CommunityTaste of Wine

Taste of Wine: Merlot is the queen of red wines

Cabernet Sauvignon is without a doubt the king of red wines.

It is the biggest seller in California and my educated guess is that it is produced in more countries that make wine than any other varietal.

So if Cabernet is king, which varietal would receive the honor of queen of the red wines?

I can be a contrarian by my very nature.  If the herd is going one way, I tend to take the path less traveled.

So when I saw the movie of some 10 years ago, “Sideways,” all I could think about was how Merlot took such a hard landing in a blizzard of four letter words. Merlot comes from the French term “little blackbird.”

According to the new “Wine Bible,” it’s actually a close cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon.  In Bordeaux, France, one of the greatest growing grounds for red wine, the left bank of the Gironde Estuary produces Cabernet, and the Right Bank of the Gironde is Merlot country.

The Merlot pedigree is long and deep, especially in the St. Emilon and Pomerol districts.  A closer examination reveals that more than 60 percent of the grapes grown in Bordeaux are Merlot.

Some 30 percent are Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc.

Dan Duckhorn founded his Napa Valley winery with his wife Margaret in 1976.  Prior to that date, the Duckhorns traveled many times to the Right Bank and fell in love with Merlot.

“Fundamental to our tradition was the early decision to focus on the production of Merlot,” Duckhorn revealed.  “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color, the fact that it went with a lot of different foods.”

Today, under the leadership of chief winemaker Renee Ary, who was appointed to this position in 2014 after an 11-year apprenticeship, Duckhorn has seven estate vineyards located throughout the Napa Valley, as well as the magnificent slopes of Howell Mountain. Each has several different flavor profiles.

The current Merlot vintage is the 2012, a blend of 88 percent Merlot and small amounts of other varietals ($47.99). Some low production select vineyards command $95 per bottle.

Other noteworthy Merlots would be led by the famous Chateau Petrus from Pomeral Right Bank in France.  The current 2010 vintage, if you can find it, sells for $2,799.

Back in California, delicious fruit-forward names include: Sonoma’s Dry Creek Pedroncelli 2013 Merlot with rich flavors of black cherry ($17) and Stag’s Leap 2013 Napa Valley 2013 Merlot with elegance and age-worthiness ($45).

Up in Washington, my choice would be Leonetti Cellars Walla Walla 2013 Merlot with black cherry/blackberry and hints of dried apricots, with a four-year wait list for their wine club.

Mathew Allen, the wine manager of the huge COSTCO wine department in Carlsbad, probably said it best when he commented that Merlot overcomes the beaten-down effect of “Sideways,” every time a consumer buys a blend, which is a lot of today’s sales.

Either with a 100 percent Merlot, or with a blend, Merlot fittingly wears the queen’s crown.

The right glass for the right wine

Riedel, the wine glass company from Austria, has just come out with their latest wine glass.  It’s a combination Cabernet/Merlot.

Austrian-based glassware company Riedel releases a new wineglass perfect for a Cabernet/Merlot pour. Photo courtesy Riedel
Austrian-based glassware company Riedel releases a new wineglass perfect for a Cabernet/Merlot pour. Photo courtesy Riedel

Decidedly French, it has a thin glass skin with a thinner rim for maximum flavor profile.  Does it make any difference, which wine glass you choose for a wine tasting?  You bet is does.

With all Riedel glasses, a generous bowl guarantees a healthy swirl to open up the wine and get it aerated.  The only caveat is don’t put it into the dishwasher to clean it.  Do it by hand and it will reward you with years of service.

Wine Bytes

A Taste of Napa Valley is the theme for a wine tasting planned for the Forgotten Barrel, Jan. 30 from noon to 6 p.m. in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego. Six wines for $10 per person, from Chardonnay to Cabernet from the 2013 vintage. Details at (886) 620-8466.

San Diego Wine Company tastes wines from Napa to Sonoma, Jan. 30, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for just $10.  Get some names by calling (858) 586-WINE.

Catena Wines from Argentina have the spotlight at Capri Blu in Rancho Bernardo, Feb. 3 at 6 p.m.  Call (858) 673-5100 for details including price for this great wine dinner.

Bankers Hill Restaurant in San Diego has a four-course Cru Beaujolais pairing dinner, Feb. 4 at 7:30 p.m.;  $120 all inclusive.  The chef and wine director will be spotlighted.  Get the details at (310) 387-5104.

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator. He is one of the leading wine commentators on the web.  View his columns at and reach him at [email protected].  Follow him on Facebook.